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With humans sparking more than 80% of Utah wildfires, officials step up restrictions

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Randy Griffin assesses the damage caused by a firebreak bulldozed through the Adelbert Doyle Smith Family Archaeological Preserve on Utah Lake’s west shore. Officials say that fire was accidentally triggered June 28 by a motorist driving through brush on the preserve while trying to evade a road closure associated with another human-caused fire that almost burned into a Saratoga Springs neighborhood.

Fire restrictions are spreading like, well, wildfire across Utah in the face of a busy season that has seen record numbers of human-caused blazes, now exceeding 520.

More than 4 in 5 of the 644 fires that have so far charred 150,000 acres were caused by human carelessness, as was the case with two fires Thursday in Tooele County, according to Kaitlyn Webb of the state Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands.

Those two were contained before burning a combined 20 acres, but they illustrate the perils Utah faces this summer, with hot, windy weather coming after one of the driest springs on record.

“As conditions stay critical and we see active fire behavior, more restrictions will go in place soon,” Webb said. “More can be expected in the near future from our [the state’s] end.”

On Friday, several federal agencies, including the U.S. Forest Service, National Park Service and Bureau of Indian Affairs joined the Bureau of Land Management in elevating fire restrictions to “stage 2” over much of central and western Utah, effective Monday, putting limits on campfires, target shooting and other activities that produce sparks.

“We are at critical dryness levels. Not only do we have the dry grass, but we have leftover fuels that didn’t burn last year. They’ve become this ground-cover mat of dry fuels that are easy to ignite if someone drops a cigarette or a steel-core bullet ricochets off a rock,” Webb said. “We remind [target shooters] to choose backstops that are free of vegetation and rocks so they can enjoy that activity without endangering public safely.”

Typically, about half the state’s wildfires are caused by abandoned campfires, targeting shooting and other human activities. The big upswing in such blazes is likely a result of the dry conditions, which make igniting a wildfire easier than ever, officials say. With fewer recreational opportunities available due to the coronavirus pandemic, Utahns have stepped up their use of public lands that abound beyond city limits.

“People are out there enjoying publics lands this year for good reason. They are recreating close to home, which is advisable,” said Hannah Lenkowski, a spokeswoman for the BLM’s West Desert District. “We urge them to take all cautionary steps when visiting public lands. Bring enough water to put out a potential fire.”

In late June in Utah County, human activities triggered fires that threatened subdivisions in Lehi, Draper and Saratoga Springs, destroying one home, and burned a rock art preserve.

Target shooting is still generally allowed on public lands. Use of steel-core and tipped ammunition, however, is prohibited between June 15 and Sept. 30, due to the tendency of fragments from these types of bullets to ignite dry grass. Exploding targets, fireworks, paper lanterns and other incendiary devices are never allowed on land administered by the BLM. In fact, fireworks are allowed nowhere in Utah except during brief windows around the Fourth of July and Pioneer Day holidays — even then they are barred from foothills and many other areas.

The new restrictions prohibit campfires outside of concrete or steel fire rings. The also ban shooting fireworks or other pyrotechnic devices outside of incorporated city limits; use of tracer ammunition; cutting, grinding or welding of metal in areas of dry vegetation; use of equipment without a properly maintained spark arrestor; and smoking near vegetation or outside of a developed recreation site, personal vehicle or building.

These steeper restrictions affect, among other places, Fishlake National Forest and all of the BLM’s Color Country and West Desert districts, which have seen 202 and 170 fires, respectively, this season. The restrictions take effect Monday, except for the BLM’s Salt Lake field office, whose restrictions start July 20. For a complete explanation of the restrictions and where they are imposed, go to the Utah Fire Info website.

“Preventing fires is a partnership. Firefighters and the public are in this together to protect life, property and our natural resources,” said the BLM’s acting Color Country District manager, Randy Peterson, who oversees public land in southwestern Utah. “With hotter and drier conditions expected for at least the short term, we want to emphasize wildfire safety, especially on windy days. When monsoonal weather patterns reach southwest and central Utah, lightning [storms], coupled with human-caused wildfires, have the potential to cause some serious challenges for everyone.”

One person is in custody for starting a fire just north of Stockton on Thursday, according to Webb. That blaze was contained at 12 acres without endangering any property, but a smaller one started by someone grinding metal damaged a vehicle and an outbuilding.

On Friday afternoon, yet another fire sparked in Tooele County. The cause of the Median Fire, which burned 23 acres and was 25% contained a few hours after it started, remains under investigation.

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